Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Heeled

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 16, 2013

While the expression “to be heeled” has fallen out of favor with gun lovers these past few decades, it lives on in newspaper articles and books. What it means to be heeled, is to be packing a pistol or two. Yes, if you’re heeled, you’re armed.

The expression was well-enough known during the 20s that it was included in a headline in the Spokesman Review of Spokane, WA of July 2, 1929 where readers read the story of a gentleman from Illinois who was riding on a bus with a number of ladies. He drew his pistol and said he intended to shoot the high heels off the ladies’ shoes on the basis that he did not approve of high heels. While he didn’t shoot any innocent high heels, that fact that he was heeled brought the Evanston, WY civil authorities to the bus to make a determination about the situation.

The reporter obviously had a sense of humor as he wrote: “The gentleman will be examined to see if he is sane, not that it makes much difference. Probably he is as sane, in his way, as the ladies who wort the high heels. Maybe saner.

The article was titled, “Heeled and Well Heeled.

The Independent newspaper in Miles City, MT published an article on April 3, 1907 that originally hailed out of San Francisco just a few days earlier. This was the story of Abraham Ruef who had been arrested at the Trocadero with regards to an ongoing bribery and graft investigation, and rumor had it that plans had been made by Mr. Ruel’s business associates to rescue him from the Elisor Biggy and his guards. When reporters asked Elisor Biggy if this was indeed true, he was quoted as saying:

Though I think the matter should not be exploited, it is a fact that every man openly identified with the prosecution of the bribers and grafters is ‘going heeled,’ and that some of the more prominent of them are employing bodyguards. Though it may sound sensational to those not familiar with the local situation, it is a fact that for a month we have been keeping a special lookout for an attempted rescue of Ruef, and we shall be happily surprised if these investigations and impending prosecutions end without a ‘gun play.’

Strangely enough, Mark Twain used the expression in his book, “Letters From Hawaii” dated April 1866 and written while he was in Honolulu.

And in Honolulu, when your friend the whaler asks you to take a “fid” with him, it is simple etiquette to say, “Here’s eighteen hundred barrels, of salt!” But, “Drink hearty!” is universal. That is the orthodox reply, the world over.

In San Francisco, sometimes, if you offend a man, he proposes to take his coat off, and inquires, “Are you on it?” If you are, you can take your coat off, too. In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, ‘Are you heeled?’ But in Honolulu, if Smith offenders Jones, Jones asks (with a rising inflection on the last word, which is excessively aggravating), “How much do you ?” Smith replies, “Sixteen hundred and forty pound — and you?” “Two ton to a dot, at a quarter past eleven this forenoon — peel yourself; you’re my blubber!”

A number of excellent dictionaries have pegged this expression to the early 1800s and as coming from the Wild West. Even Peter Watt’s “Dictionary of the Old West,:1850-1900” has the expression pegged to the Wild West of the 1800s.  Unless one of Idiomation’s readers can offer a link to an earlier published version that the Mark Twain version, it would be greatly appreciated.

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